Female Friendships: A Complicated Terrain
Scientists, sociologists, and psychologists agree that women are wired for relationships. The female brain is finely tuned to human faces, voice tone, and body language. Even as infants, baby girls are tuned into the emotions of their caregivers. Neurological fine tuning allows women to understand people in depth and feel the joy or pain others are experiencing. A female brain is a machine designed for empathy and connection with others.
If this is true, why are so many women struggling in relationships? Why are relationships between women so complicated? Sadly, we live in a world that does not always recognize the unique gifts of a female brain. In a world that values autonomy over connection, independence over community, and man over nature, the natural contributions women bring to culture have been marginalized, trivialized, minimized, and pathologized. Women have been labeled weak, needy or dependent. In this system, female friendship is much more complicated than one might think.
Isn’t friendship natural?
Bonds that form between women can be strong and enduring. Research speculates that the female life span is longer than male life span in part due to their ability to form close attachments with other women. According to psychologist and author Barbara Hunter, Phd, “Friendship is one of the things women do best. We are better at making friends than many of the things we put our minds to because it comes naturally.” While this statement is true neurologically, my experience suggests it’s not true psychologically. As a practicing psychotherapist, I regularly see women struggle in their relationships with other women. Women face competition and jealously between women. Many women prefer the company of men and find women uninteresting.
Hollywood romanticizes female relationships in movies and television such as Sex and the City, contributing to an environment where a woman who struggles making friends feels alone and defective. In reality, many women are strangers to the benefits of female friendship.
Why is something natural so complicated?
In patriarchal culture, women unconsciously internalize cultural norms about themselves and other women. Sexualized images of femininity pervade western culture, normalizing a “male gaze”. Too often, women unconsciously learn to filter and judge themselves by this gaze. Forming a healthy self-image is almost impossible by western standards of beauty, sexuality, and femininity. Yet, liking one’s own “femaleness” is essential to enjoying another’s. Consequently, “friendship” between women is not simply neurological. Forging connection between women is sociological and psychological.
What does a healthy friendship feel like?
Many women are unfamiliar with the benefits of connection. Settling for relationships that don’t feel good is socially encouraged for women, both overtly and covertly. Correcting this painful reality begins with identifying what a healthy relationship feels like. Researchers at the Wellesley Stone Center for Relational Therapy identified the characteristics of healthy relationships. Women in healthy relationships experience the following benefits:
- Zest, increased energy
- Increased self awareness and sensitivity to others
- Clarity and ability to act (decision making feels easy/less burdensome and fearful)
- Desire for more connection (isolating/hiding parts of the self becomes less necessary)
When relationships are unhealthy, women will experience the following:
- Decreased energy and vitality
- Confusion (which is often generated by shame/decisions are difficult)
- Withdrawal from human connection (and hobbies/self care)
- Turning toward addiction (relief from pain of disconnection)
For many women, friendship does not come “naturally” so the increased energy that comes from mutual connection is foreign. Increased self- awareness that assists decision-making is rarely a by-product of relationships. Living in a culture that values masculine traits over feminine traits distorts the “natural” abilities women have to bond and connect with women. As a result, many women find themselves lonely and ashamed. Shame comes with loneliness because the underlying belief is that “something must be wrong with me.”
What do I do?
If you’re like many women who struggle in relationships with women, shame makes it difficult to acknowledge the truth. Be gentle with yourself as you explore loneliness. Loneliness often manifests as depression or addiction, so may not be obvious at first. Consider your current social landscape. Think about the women in your life, and the quality of your friendships. Ask yourself the following questions.
- Are you trustworthy, (does your behavior match your words?)
- Are you available, and interested in your friends?
- Which friend(s) make your life feel more full (your life is better for her presence)?
- Which friend(s) support your best self (genuinely want good things for you)?
- Which friend(s) leave you feeling lonely or depleted (drain your energy)?
- Which friends stir up a feeling of being less than?
- Which friend(s) feel worth the time to work through these issues?
If you’re unsatisfied with your answers to these questions, finding healthy female support is essential. Living in disconnection alters brain chemistry. Consider beginning a relationship with a female therapist. Finding a safe, nurturing person to connect with supports your optimal brain chemistry. As your brain heals, relationships become easier and more fluid, and addictive cravings diminish. Connection, the natural anti-depressant, brings relief from confusion, shame, and the pain of isolation.